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Since 1732, the Redemptorists — a congregation of missionary priests and brothers — have followed in Jesus’ footsteps, preaching the Word and serving the poor and most abandoned.
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Wednesday of the 30th week in ordinary time

Father Kevin MacDonald, C.Ss.R.

As Catholics, it’s important that we don’t become fundamentalist Christians regarding Halloween. Knowing our history is a help. Otherwise we might miss appreciating things that could be life-giving in our culture.

The word Halloween or Hallowe’en dates to about 1745 and is of Christian origin. The word Hallowe’en means “hallowed evening” or “holy evening.” It comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve (the evening before All Hallows’ Day). In Scots, the word eve is even, and this is contracted to e’en or een. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Hallowe’en. Today’s Halloween customs are thought to have been influenced by folk customs and beliefs from the Celtic-speaking countries, some of which are believed to have pagan roots. it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which comes from the Old Irish for “summer’s end.”

Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. It was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld thinned. This meant the “spirits,” or “fairies,” could more easily come into this world and were particularly active. Most scholars see these spirits or fairies as degraded versions of ancient gods whose power remained active in the people’s minds even after they had been officially replaced by later religious beliefs.

The spirits were both respected and feared, with individuals often invoking the protection of God when approaching their dwellings. At Samhain, it was believed that the spirits needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink, or portions of the crops, were left outside for them.

The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes, seeking hospitality. Places were set at the dinner table and by the fire to welcome them. The belief that the souls of the dead return home one night of the year and must be appeased seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world. In 19th century Ireland, candles would be lit and prayers formally offered for the souls of the dead. After this, the eating, drinking, and games would begin.

From at least the 16th century, the festival included mumming and guising in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Wales. This involved people going house-to-house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. It may have originally been a tradition whereby people impersonated the fairies or the souls of the dead and received offerings on their behalf.

Throughout Ireland and Britain, the household festivities included rituals and games intended to foretell one’s future, especially regarding death and marriage. Apples and nuts were often used in these divination rituals. They included apple bobbing, nut roasting, mirror-gazing, pouring molten lead or egg whites into water, dream interpretation, and others.

Special bonfires were lit and there were rituals involving them. Their flames, smoke, and ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers, and were also used for divination. In some places, torches lit from the bonfire were carried sunwise around homes and fields to protect them.

It is suggested that the fires were a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic: they mimicked the sun, helping the “powers of growth” and holding back the decay and darkness of winter. In Scotland these bonfires and divination games were banned by the church elders in some parishes. In Wales bonfires were lit to “prevent the souls of the dead from falling to earth.” Later, these bonfires served to keep “away the devil”.

The Catholic feast of All Saints Day traces its origin in the Church to the year 609, and it was first celebrated in May. However, in the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV moved the holiday to November 1 so that October 31 would become the celebration of the vigil of the feast—All Hallow’s Eve.

When deciding what to do about Halloween, it’s important for parents to remember the Christian origins of the holiday and to celebrate accordingly. Children putting on a costume and dressing up as their favorite character and going through the neighborhood and asking for candy is good clean fun.

What should be avoided are costumes that are overly scary or that could be seen as promoting evil. Making every effort to make the Holy Day Mass a family event is also a good reminder of the connection between All Hallows Eve and the Feast of All Saints.

Blessings to all and happy feast day tomorrow.
Father Kevin MacDonald